By Mike Cavender, RTDNA Executive Director
We took note recently of the decision by a federal judge in California which ordered the release of video showing Gardena, CA police officers shooting an unarmed man. The police department sought to keep the video under wraps, but the judge said the public had a right to see it. In our opinion, he made the right decision.
An appeals court stayed that lower court’s ruling until arguments could be heard, but that stay wasn’t issued until after the LA Times posted the video on its website and it went viral.
This case highlights an ongoing debate around the country as police equip themselves not only with in-car dash cams, but now body cams, as well. RTDNA is on record believing these videos must be part of the public record, just like arrest reports, 9-1-1 calls and other public safety reports.
The argument for disclosure, we feel, is fundamental: Video like this is supposed to raise the transparency level related to police actions at the scene of an incident. But how can that goal be achieved if no one is allowed to see it?
U.S. District Court Judge Stephen Wilson, in his ruling to release the video, wrote: “The fact that they (the police department) spent the city’s money, presumably derived from taxes, only strengthens the public’s interest in seeing the video,” he said. “Moreover, defendants cannot assert a valid compelling interest in sealing the videos to cover up any wrongdoing on their part…” That reference was in connection to a $4.7 million settlement between the city and the dead man’s survivors. Gardena’s attorneys originally argued that, since the terms of that settlement were confidential, the video itself should also be under seal.
As we’ve said before, RTDNA understands there may be a reasonable need, at times, to guard against an unwarranted violation of privacy related to what is captured on police video. But there are judicial remedies for resolving these concerns. However, we believe the default position should be disclosure and release of these videos, just as other public safety records are made available.
Only then can the public be served with a better understanding as to how—and, perhaps, why certain events happened the way they did. In this case, Judge Wilson got it right. In the future, we hope other courts and police agencies will, as well!